How the next generation of people and tech are solving digital carbon emissions
As part of London Climate Action Week (LCAW), our very own Neil Clark brought together a panel of experts to discuss the digital industry, its impact on the environment, and what the world is doing about it. You can catch his talk on demand here. But if you’d prefer to read Neil’s insights, here’s the second instalment in a two-part series covering the main points he made.
In the first half of his talk, Neil discusses some of the drivers for change in making our digital industry more sustainable. Be that big corporate commitments to carbon net-zero targets, eco-friendly policy proposals put forward by political parties, or simply Elon Musk’s viral tweets about the carbon footprint of Bitcoin.
But there are other factors to consider here. Namely, the ever-weightier responsibility for our world and its well-being which is being passed through the generations. As well as the efforts being made towards developing technology which is sustainable, and not just easy to use.
Younger generations are making noise
There will always be another generation after our own. Which is why the phrase ‘the kids will be alright’ is all too often used as a kind of get-out-of-jail-free card, which sees adults shirk their responsibilities to past and future generations.
Which makes the work of young people today like Joycelyn Langdon, a Cambridge University student, all the more admirable. She is researching how the voices of indigenous people can be put at the heart of AI tools being used to solve the climate crisis. She’s also the founder of Climate in Colour, which uses digital video courses to raise awareness of the colonial roots behind the climate emergency. Both are extraordinarily important pieces of work.
The Panoply group has invested in this demographic and its eagerness for change, too. The company sponsored an A-Level engineering student, Nabeeha, via the Arkwright programme. She was so inspired by reducing the impact of the digital industry that she changed the angle of her final assignment to analyse the problem. Her level of questioning has put the knowledge of many experts her senior to shame.
Various universities have come up with collaborative challenges around this topic. Loughborough University London, for example, allows private organisations to set briefs for groups of masters students. The challenge concerning the digital industry’s environmental impact, which Neil led, caught the interest of 25 students. From changing behaviours, to how to reduce emissions on a website, to educating populations on the subject, to the impact of working from home, the students generated a wealth of in-depth research over a ten-week period.
One of the questions, which explored ‘Factors for choosing your future employer’, exposed a lack of care for a company’s impact on the planet. It also highlighted that less than half had even heard of the concept of a digital carbon footprint.
The sustainable tech scene is mobilising
Whilst there’s still much more to be done in order to get people caring about sustainability throughout their life, technology and the way it’s developed offers a nice silver lining.
Netherlands-based Blockheating, for example, is locating data centres on farms so the wasted heat can be used in the greenhouses to grow crops. The genius idea was born out of the concept that a data centre exists within a much larger world, one which can offer ample solutions.
It’s this state of mind, getting our heads outside of the data centre, which will help our generations, and future ones, to pedal a more sustainable, circular economy.
The key takeaway here is that our existing success metrics can be flawed. Power Usage Effectiveness, which is the main measure of data centre energy efficiency, does not do anywhere near enough to allow for worthwhile comparison between data centres. Especially when innovations like that of Blockheating’s come into it.
As well as questioning how our data centers operate, technology is also being used to reduce the embodied carbon in our equipment. ITRenew is leading the way here, taking a circular economy approach and reconditioning equipment. Elia Energy is using the blockchain to match renewable energy blocks to the actual demand it was intended for in the data centre.
Whilst Frame.work has launched its much anticipated right to fix laptops. Essentially the laptop equivalent of Fairphone, the project has enjoyed heavy involvement from e-commerce platform, iFixit. It allows a laptop owner to maintain, repair and upgrade their device themselves, by making the devices out of responsibly sourced parts.
Using AI for good
Artificial Intelligence’s (AI) reputation has taken a bit of a battering of late. From biased algorithms, to its application to find new oil fields, and the amount of compute power required to train an individual algorithm, there’s plenty of reasons to remain skeptical about AI.
But it is also down to AI that we can map deforestation, model climate scenarios, and make data centres more efficient. The technology, despite its flaws, has the potential to be an undoubted accelerator for change in the sustainability sector.
At the Panoply group, our teams use London-based software firm Emitwise. The company helps other companies measure their emissions. A firm feeds its data into Emitwise’s engine, covering its finance and expense systems, employee surveys on commuting and work from home, utility bills, building data, waste management data – the list goes on. Such Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) solutions offer an unprecedented level of insight into a company’s carbon footprint.
All this said, we need to do more research
Despite the work done by DIMPACT, a web-based tool which calculates the greenhouse gas emissions associated with serving media content, and others, there’s still a lack of breadth and depth in the research of the environmental impact of the digital industry.
This means that in order of magnitude, the digital industry and its carbon footprint are behind most other very well-researched and documented industries. Be that transport, or energy generation. To solve this, the sector needs to condense a huge period of planet centred innovation into a small period of time.
The research which does exist highlights the issues we’re still facing. The latest modelling puts data centre electricity energy demand at about 2% of global electricity demand by 2030. That’s up from 1-1.5% at the moment.
This is a figure all organisations have some control over. Firms need to stop data hoarding and start caring about file sizes again. Since the Paris Agreement, the average web page size has gone up almost 50% on desktop, and up more than 100% on mobile.
The WEF predicts a four fold increase in data generation from now until just 2025. Which is why we have to ask ourselves the following questions:
- Why do we need that data?
- What is its purpose?
- Who is learning from it?
- What are we as organisations learning?
- And most importantly, is something being learned that will help the person the data is being scraped from?
To read the first part of Neil’s talk, click here.